Why Are Narratives So Moral?

This question’s answer seems very, very obvious and without a doubt, for me at least: Why are narratives so moral?  The question was posed to me in an e-mail, which served as a call for responses to be presented at IU Bloomington’s conference, a conference that is thematically in line with our “Themester.”  Fall 2012’s theme is “Good Behavior, Bad Behavior: Molecules to Morality.”  The “molecules to morality” part is the part I don’t like about the theme’s title, primarily because I think the proposal of an ought from an is is silly.  There is some limited sense in which I think an ought can come from an is, but that is beyond the scope of this post. Anyway, my answer to the above posed question is —surprise!  surprise!— Kantian in flavor.  If you are in cognitive science, psychology, or neuroscience, and actually know a thing or two about the philosophical founding of your science, then this will, on the contrary, not surprise you.

For those who are in sciences of mind —why Kantian, and what does it have to do with narration?  First thought to consider: Kant’s “Copernican revolution,” very aptly so called, proposed that experience conforms to knowledge, rather than knowledge conforming to experience.  (For a wonderful, but all too short, discourse on Kant’s Copernican revolution, I highly recommend Dennis Sweet’s introduction to the Barnes and Noble Essential Library edition of the Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics.)  Second thought to consider: In addition, Kant also told us that space and time are sensuous intuitions in which our experience has been organized and formatted.  Jump outside of the kind of thinking one would encounter at the turn of the nineteenth century, and think about this as a modern scientist of the mind.  What do we know about modern psychology, and so forth?  Experimental psychology data show that people tend to see what they have been psychologically primed to see, as based on previous experience.  Decent examples are the results from the Postman-Bruner experiment (presented in Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions), the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon, and apophenia.  These examples correspond very well with the first of Kant’s abovementioned ideas, even though Kant was a strict metaphysician, and that modern sciences of mind need admit no such position; where Kant meant a priori in the sense of external to all experience (other philosophers use it as simply meaning “before experience”), the scientist of mind can assent to an ad hoc understanding of a priori that means something like “prior to a particular experience, but diachronically a part of the subject’s continuum of experience.”

This brings us to another point, which then refers to Kant’s second abovementioned idea.  Does the nature of past experience, such that there is some systematicity in its application to experience, necessitate structure in the mind —let’s say, an organizing and formatting?  I am not being coy, here; but stringing you along, so that you get the sense of how all these items are interrelated, and how strongly one point follows from another.  In fact, there is philosophy and science to support this notion of formatting, beyond whatever it was that Kant may have said.  From the philosophical standpoint, take the exemplar anti-Kantian, Henri Bergson, who presented the idea of “images,” in his Matter and Memory.  I am not, by craft, a specialist in the philosophy of mind, but the earliest suggestion I have come across of the interpolation of elements in the visual field come from Bergson.  It is the idea that the input, as presented through visual stimulus, at any given time, is not fully utilized to give us that wonderful Cartesian Theater effect; the mind interposes “images” from the memory upon the visual field to complete it.  Whatever the earliest suggestion, it appears to be a matter of fact, now, and it is an example that Daniel Dennett loves —and so he should, because it is a great example.  Still, what does this have to do with narration in literature?!  Your answer is: structured perspective.  Let’s do the legit, first-order narration first.

Suppose someone is simple recasting the entirety of a day’s accounts to you in written form.  There should be no dissent over the fact that numerous individuals will tell that story to you in a way that, inexorably, is psychologically telling of their own experience.  For instance, one might report having seen a yellow fire jump off a piece of metal, while another might report having seen electrical sparks jump out of aluminum; and another might report that electromagnetic waves likely caused a valence electron to eject from an aluminum sheet.  This is straightforward enough, but what about a complex of human affairs?  It is not difficult to see that a first order account of the affairs, within the plasticity of how they might be perceived by the subject, will be reported within the representational framework of that subject’s notion of morality.  That is, if the perceiving subject, who is recounting a set of human interactions, will tell that story from within the personal context of his or her experience.  Higher-order narration, such as in a novel, gets only slightly more complicated, as it involves conscious motive, that is, the intent to manipulate the reader, regardless of normative assessment of said manipulation.

In a novel, most of the time, there is an explicit case being made for some sort of moral position, be it humanist, religious, or what have you.  The art of veiled morality is making the morality as subtle as possible, so that the reader thinks that he or she is actually putting things together on her or his own.  However, it is certainly there, and no amount of effort can fully remove it from text, because it is in the organizing and formatting of the author’s mind.  The best attempt at distorting one’s writing, such that the moral position was unintelligible, was the great psychologist’s, Friedrich Nietzsche; it’s there, of course, but getting any two people to agree on what it is, is a different matter (though I think a dearth in systematic Nietzschean scholarship and vested interest of Nietzscheans is more to fault than Nietzsche is to credit).  As Walter Kaufmann called it, Nietzsche’s writing is, at times, “an anarchy of atoms.”  Nietzsche knew what he was doing, and I will even to stretch my neck out so much as to say that he would agree with the thesis of the present blog post.  The point is that, in higher-order narration, one has to erase the structural elements of their own mind, which always and necessarily contain the residue of one’s own set of value-judgments, no matter how cacophonous and internally dissonant.  There is an interesting side-discussion, here, in the direction of semantics and its relation to value-judgments, but this is not the time for it, though it should most definitely be noted, because there may be a sense in which the lack of value-judgments begins to rescind meaning within any given account, whether it is a fictional narrative or a scientific discourse.  Many, for example, have said that Nietzsche was nuts, and that there is no sense to be made of his smattering of sentences.  However, if one is well-versed enough in their James Joyce, to name just one, then I think it is very likely that such a person will be able to see the tell-tale signs of continuity and meaning in Nietzsche’s work, as many Nietzscheans will attest.  I don’t just bring Nietzsche up because I am a huge fan of his, but because I think his work (and works like Joyce’s Finnegans Wake) illustrate just how impossible it is to strip morality from an account, no matter how general and how abstract; the more the account is about the world, the more apt an individual is, I think, to a faux pas, and accidentally giving away his or her moral stance; it’s nothing more than a parapraxis —and that’s really what it is, because so many of the assertoric, affirmed conscious beliefs extend into the subconscious, such that one acts on those beliefs without consciously thinking of them.  This is why the “anarchy of atoms” can only do so well as camouflage; and it might be the underlying reason that forced Kuhn to say that there can be no paradigm-independent view of the world.

The above might be easily concluded thusly: 1) We understand the world in relation to what we already know about the world; 2) this entails a formatting of the world, making both understanding and expression of that understanding contingent upon the structure consequent upon the organization and formatting; and 3) there is, for whatever reason (my guess is that the subject must possess existential coordinates to stand in relation to the world)  —but experience confirms it—, the requirement of value-judgments and perspective.  I apologize for the messiness of number three, but this is not my area of expertise, and I think it is common enough to our experience that such is the case.

Editorial Acknowledgment: I would like to thank my friend, Bill Laboon, for looking over this post and helping with the edits.  All remaining errors are my own.

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Filed under Kantian Philosophy, Literature, Philosophy, Philosophy of Science

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